2016: Issue 3: Shannon Lyons: A dead mouse and a broken coffee machine

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A dead mouse and a broken coffee machine. 2016. Shannon Lyons. Photo: Dan McCabe

There is a scene in Mulholland Drive where a man in a diner, a ‘Twinkies’, tells the story of a dream he had about that very place. He has come to the diner where his dream was situated to dispel a consuming terror; caused by a man behind the restaurant. He and his friend go to the back of the diner to investigate. After approaching, slowly, with building terror at the understanding of his premonitive dream, he dies when the man turns out to be real, and to have appeared, looming out from behind a wall. Mulholland Drive repeats this framework several times, in different ways: you already know what is going to happen or it is in some way preordained, but when it does occur, it becomes somehow more incredible and estranging. In a twist, knowing what will happen leaves you powerless. In the most usually lauded scene, an actress (played by Naomi Watts) goes over her lines, playing out the terrible, cliché part that has been scripted for her. She then performs the lines again in her audition with an incredible change and sudden emphatic charge. The change between the two, the exact same lines performed twice, provokes a startling reconsideration of our expectations. Similarly when a singer drops dead on stage, and her emotionally stirring rendition of a song goes on as the recording it is, we are left estranged within Lynch’s manipulation of our emotions. In all of these cases, there is an element of doubling, between the dream and reality, the practice and the performance, the lip-sync and the recording, that is necessary to achieve the distinction between the expectation and the result. Perhaps the most pertinent description of this phenomenon is (oddly) given to us by Stephen King, who described the third and most potent kind of horror as terror, where you arrived home to find every object in your house replaced by an exact replica (and your friends with exact doubles – the Capgras delusion).

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A dead mouse and a broken coffee machine. 2016. Shannon Lyons. Photo: Dan McCabe

Lyon’s show is similarly a doubling, and also not what you might expect from its literal titling. The creeping doubts associated with a motionless, taxidermied mouse in a room that is no real café, but a parallel to the café next door, are quite insidious. The glowing white walls, the unlabelled coffee cups, and the small and very much once-real dead animal all provoke the sense of a nightmare. The script is as simple and short as it needs to be: the barista only tells the customer that the coffee machine is not working. It is worth noting that on the night of the performance, the barista was not an actor, but a barista. They answered the questions as themselves. Her only instruction was to tell everyone that the coffee machine was broken – this is also where the script ends, and she answered all other questions as best she could. The gallery space is not a perfect copy of the café next door, but it is a more perfect version of it. More pristine and clean, more uninhabited – except that everything within it is non-operational, defunct, or dead. Beside the functioning efficiency of MOANA coffee, MOANA gallery has become, in this show, a broken shadow – a nightmare version with an even more beautiful façade. The dead mouse is a small, sour nightmare, a subtle indictment of the situation of Moana: next door to a café that needs to maintain a certain façade. The dead mouse, belonging to the waste areas of cafes and city restaurants more than this façade, undoes our consumerist fantasies of sites of consumption; our obsessions with eating and drinking without consequence.

In Clarice Lispector’s The Passion according to G.H. the main character is driven to a crisis by the appearance of a cockroach while cleaning her maid’s quarters. This moment’s plummet into immanence and insanity seems strangely reciprocal to Lyon’s own small, abhorrent placement of a mouse in the pure white gallery space:

‘Meeting the face I had put inside the opening, right near my eyes, in the half-darkness, the fat cockroach had moved… It was just that discovering sudden life in the nakedness of the room had startled me as if I’d discovered that the dead room was in fact mighty. Everything there had dried up­–but a cockroach remained… There, in the naked and parched room, the virulent drop: in the clean test-tube a drop of matter. I looked at the room with distrust. So there was a roach. Or roaches. Where? Behind the suitcases perhaps. One? Two? How many? Behind the motionless silence of the suitcases, perhaps a whole darkness of roaches–which all of a sudden reminded me what I’d discovered as a child when I lifted the mattress I slept on: The blackness of hundreds and hundreds of bedbugs, crowded together on atop the other… As in childhood, I then had the strong sense that I was entirely alone in a house, and that the house was high and floating in the air, and that the house had invisible roaches…’

It is particularly telling that this occurs in an otherwise spare and white interior ‘an insane asylum from which dangerous objects have been removed’, where G.H. is ‘trapped by the sun’ it is this kind of spiritual terror that is evoked by Lyon’s placement of the small, dead mouse beside the broken coffee machine in the too-bright gallery space, empty except for these strange elements. It is only a small horror, to place a dead mouse in a bright white room, but it is enough.

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A dead mouse and a broken coffee machine. 2016. Shannon Lyons. Photo: Dan McCabe.

The work comes from the work of artists like Michael Asher, and despite their label of ‘institutional critique’; his interventions also often strike one as being more evocative than particularly critical. His collection of radiators from different parts of museums into one room seems to be a strange gathering and invocation of some sort, rather than being a criticism – or at least being equally as theatrical as it is critical. Yet Lyons has taken the process a step further. It no longer feels like the directly institutional engagement of Asher’s work, rather it warrants connection to Lynch and Lispector and their cinematic and literary devices and processes. Perhaps the inclusion of the script and a performer is to embrace the very theatrical nature of the work. It is interesting to see this work in relationship to the work Store she undertook with Paige Alderdice at Success earlier this year. That work had a similarly nightmarish aspect, a clean white room with a single window that looked out over another room filled with ceiling tiles in stacked piles, illuminated by dying, flickering fluorescents. The window in that work seemed more explicitly like a fourth wall. There is, in both works, the link to an institutional space’s history or present, yet also a complete theatrical transformation of that space.

Michael Fried notably criticised minimalism of being theatrical, and the term often has a negative connotation. Though this work still has something to do with the genre of ‘literalism’ that Fried disdained, it has moved beyond putting an audience in relation with its objecthood, or any sort of Judd like ‘specific’ objecthood, and we are witness to another kind of literalism–of illusion that takes place in the literal sphere. Other than this, it depends whether one thinks of theatre as the degeneration of art or not as to whether we agree with Fried. I am inclined to disagree; on the basis of his excessively essentialist thinking and supposition of theatre as something that is merely ‘glue’ between other (and it is implied “higher”) forms of art. The work is theatrical, and even though it is different from the minimalism that Fried spoke about, and a different (perhaps more ‘literal’) sort of theatre, it is certainly a good enough case to allay any concern that Fried might have been right in being dismissive of the literal and the theatrical.

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A dead Mouse and a broken coffee machine. 2016. Shannon Lyons. Photo: Dan McCabe.

Yet it is the nature of the double within this work that is particularly enticing and terrifying. Much like her near-imperceptible casting of blu-tack, or wall plugs in other exhibitions, Lyons is preoccupied with taking the paraphernalia of spaces and recreating them. In Francis Russel’s astute essay he states that ‘Against the notion that perception is both immediate and unmediated in character, Lyon’s work suggests that it is only through the reproduction and representation of things that we are able to approach a phenomenon’s sense.’ Yet this ‘sense’, to me, also does not make sense; much as Lispector’s G.H. becomes convinced of the immanence of things, and takes the squished matter of the cockroach in her mouth, so here there is something nightmarish and absurd. An inexplicable sensation comes over us, not only of the flow of commerce, the underpinning of the café, but its very façade-like nature. It is a sense that is like J.G. Ballard’s statement about his writing: that ‘the reality that you took for granted – the comfortable day-to-day life, school, the home where one lives, the familiar street and all the rest of it, the trips to the swimming pool and the cinema ­– was just a stage set. They could be dismantled overnight…Nothing is as secure as we like to think it is…A large part of my fiction tries to analyse what is going on around us, and whether we are much different people from the civilised human beings we imagine ourselves to be.’ Lyons is perhaps not as interested in defining a cultural epoch as Ballard (though there is definitely a case for it in focusing on the prevalence of cafes popping up around the city) but a similar sense pervades her construction of a parallel, a ‘stage-set’ to Moana coffee, a stage-set depicting a small nightmare.

All images: A dead mouse and a broken coffee machine. 2016. Shannon Lyons. Stainless steel, pine lining boards, commercial 2grp head coffee machine, coffee grinder, superwipe cloth, reclaimed jarrah, MDF, single wall paper takeaway coffee cups, coffee beans, coffee knocker, rubber mat, extension cord, plastic bin, bin liner, clipboards, glass, digital print on paper, IKEA ‘EKBY BJÄRNUM’ brackets, taxidermied mouse corpse and borrowed stanchions. Opening Night Barista: Sophie Johnstone. Photos: Dan McCabe.

by Graham Mathwin